John was born on 4th April 1886. He was the eldest son of the Reverend Dr John Brown, of Bellahouston, and Margaret Romanes Brown, who lived at 23 Ainsley Place, Edinburgh, and the grandson of Dr Rankine of Sorne.
He was educated first at the High School of Glasgow. At the early age of just 15 he left the High School and entered the University of Glasgow, where in spite of his youth he won the Cowan Gold Medal in Latin and Greek, the Blackstone Medal in Greek, and the Luke Historical Prize for best examination in Ancient Greek and Roman History, finishing up with the Snell Exhibition and an inevitable First Class Honours in Classics.
At Oxford University he was equally successful. He matriculated at Balliol in 1905, and secured First Classes in Classical Moderations, and in final school of Literae Humaniores. He also won the Ferguson Scholarship in Classics, which is open to graduates of the four Scottish Universities.
After graduation he decided to specialise in Ancient History, and acted for a short time as classical assistant at Armstrong College. He also studied in Berlin, travelled in Greece, Turkey and Asia Minor. Finally he was appointed to a Fellowship in Pembroke College, Oxford, and worked there as lecturer in Classics and Ancient History.
John received a Territorial Commission in the Highland Infantry, 7th Battalion, and was mobilised at the outbreak of war. He served at Gallipoli and narrowly avoided death after receiving a head injury. Following this, he suffered from dysentery, then jaundice and was sent to recover first to Malta, and then to England in October 1915.
Following his recovery, he was stationed in Ripon until his company were sent to Egypt in March 1916.
John was wounded on 21st April whilst serving with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in the Battle of Gaza. He died of his wounds on the 23rd April 1917 aged 31.